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Monday, December 21, 2009

Frank Pellico - A Spirited Christmas

Okay... you're probably saying to yourself "Self, that cover looks awfully familiar. Have I seen that somewhere before or have I just drank too much eggnog???"

Before you dial up the EggNog Anonymous hotline, this identical cover was used as an alternate of The Murk Family's Christmas album. It later appeared as an alternate cover for Mickey Rooney's Christmas album (but if you saw the other cover, you'd understand why this one was used... you've been warned!).

When I saw this album at a thrift store in Chicago, I was half tempted to pass it up - who needs yet another Christmas organ album and I don't need a THIRD album with the same cover in my collection. Or did I? I read the back and kept asking myself "Why does the name Frank Pellico ring a bell?"

I added the album to the pile and continued on my merry way (you can never beat 25 cents for an LP). Only after I left the city limits of my former hometown and got back to my current hometown of Fort Wayne did I discover the treasure that made the 150+ mile trek east.

Frank Pellico grew up in Chicago during a time when roller rinks regularly featured live organists playing skating music. In high school, Frank studied the organ under the tutelage of Al Melgrand, the legendary organist of the massive Barton organ installed in Chicago Stadium during Chicago Blackhawks hockey games.

Pellico began playing at roller rinks throughout Chicago and played nightly at the Matterhorn Supper Club in Palos Hills, IL. His reputation as a top-notch organist was secured when in 1970, he was hired by the Chicago Cubs to play the Lowrey organ at all of their home games at Beautiful Wrigley Field.

It was around this time that Frank recorded an album entitled "Touching" that featured his amazing organ skills on the Hammond X-66 organ:

In 1976, Pellico and the Cubs parted ways (the new organist was Vance Fothergill - real Cub fans know this stuff). Frank continued to play all over Chicago as well as continue his recording career. That takes us up to 1978 - the year of the Christmas album you're looking at.

Disco was ruling the airwaves at the time and Frank wanted to stay current. Click on the back album cover to read what you're about to listen to.

When you hear the very first notes of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", images of "Hill Street Blues" will immediately come to mind. Then the cool organ kicks in and transforms the experience to a whole new level.

It's a unique album - a true testament to its times. Any sports bar in Chicago would be proud to have this album in their collection and would gladly play it on their speakers during happy hour.

Frank Pellico - A Spirited Christmas

As the 1980s began, Frank still recorded his music and played the organ wherever and whenever he could. It was around this time that amazing things were happening for the occupants of Chicago Stadium.

The Blackhawks sported a new look with youngsters like Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour, and Chris Chelios. The Bulls were putting a nucleus of talent together around a kid from North Carolina... some guy who wore #23... name of Jordan...

In the early 1990s, the Blackhawks and Bulls were packing them in at the Stadium as a vacancy opened up for an organist on the old Barton organ. They needed someone who understood the massive organ, someone who had experience, someone who could rile up the crowds.

One last note: as many sports arenas around the country move toward the school of "ESPN Rock Jams" and phase out organists altogether, Chicago stands alone as one of the few sports towns that openly embrace their organists.

Nancy Faust has been playing for the White Sox since the mid-1970s and is credited with introducing the "Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye" song to sports. Gary Pressy has had the Chicago Cubs job since 1987 and played with Harry Caray all those 7th inning stretches. He now plays with tone-deaf celebs during the stretch (GROAN!!)

Frank Pellico's been with the Blackhawks since 1991 and the ownership recently tried to cut into his playing time. The fans quickly rallied to his side and he's still a fixture above the home ice.

You've got the last word Frank:

Happy listening...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The FPT Christmas Revue in Review & Stan Freberg Revues All!

Several hours ago, the curtain came down on the run of "The FPT Christmas Revue". It was a project that I was closely involved with since the beginning of this year; a journey full of challenges, frustrations, joy, and remarkable achievements while bringing a totally new work to the stage.

I must thank Thom Hofrichter and Joel D. Scribner for this amazing opportunity. These two gentlemen gave me a chance to showcase my perspective on Christmas and they were supportive of the whole process. I owe them a lot and I look forward to working with them on other shows at First Presbyterian Theater.

Over 1000 people came out to see the show over its run and saw a plethora of talent. We had 30+ people in the cast, ages ranging from five to 70-something. We had members of five different families within the cast, a wide range of Christmas songs to sing, and each member of the cast gave it their all every night on the boards.

To my fellow cast members, thank you so much. I got to know many of you in those small moments of waiting around for another go around on a particular song or waiting for your moment to rehearse your lines. I shared your moments of accomplishment, swapped the latest jokes about Tiger Woods, and laughed with all of you throughout the whole process.

Thanks to all of you wonderful people for making this Christmas incredibly special. I say to all of you:

Of course, we can't forget this guy either...

Imagine answering a voicemail left on your cell phone in July and hearing the legendary voice of Stan Freberg returning your phone call! It was that phone call that began the process of securing the right to perform "Green Chri$tma$" for possibly the first time live on stage anywhere.

Stan and his wife Hunter provided our little theater group the greatest gift of the year. We had enormous fun putting it on the stage and the audience immensely enjoyed the work. Every night, you could hear a pin drop when our Bob Cratchit reminded everyone about "whose birthday we're celebrating".

Freberg revealed to us a never-before hilarious story behind the creation of "Green Chri$tma$". Ever wonder what cash register they used for the end of that song? Download to hear the story for yourself along with a Christmas greeting from Stan himself:

Stan Freberg - Green Chri$tma$ Greetings

Happy listening...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dorothy Collins - Won't You Spend Christmas With Me (STEREO)

In yesterday's post, I gave props to Buster over at Big 10-Inch Record for posting some darn good shares this downloading season. Late last month, I posted an entry that mentioned that two albums I originally had planned on sharing out were already posted to Buster's blog.

One of those two albums was this gem of a Christmas album. I was ready to file it away for the winter and move on to other shares when our friend Ernie (not Bert) pointed out in a comment that Buster had posted a high-fidelity copy of the album whilst mine read STEREO!

It's commonplace here for me to miss small things like that. Maybe it's the early stages of Alzheimer's... Thanks for bringing that to my attention Ern!

Backstory: Marjorie Chandler was born in 1926 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada - just across the river from Detroit, Michigan. She developed a love for music and began singing on radio stations on BOTH sides of the river in her teens. It was also during this time she adopted a new stage name: Dorothy Collins.

On a trip to Chicago in 1940, 14-yr. old Dorothy met bandleader/composer Raymond Scott and was quickly hired into his band. Throughout the 1940s, Scott mentored, tutored, and taught everything Collins needed to know about phrasing, breath control, etc., and became a popular vocalist of the day.

In 1949, CBS asked Scott to take over the bandleading duties for one of its popular shows, "Your Hit Parade". Just as they were getting their feet wet in radio, NBC decided to create the television version of "YHP". With her good looks and style, Dorothy quickly became a fan favorite and rose to stardom.

"Your Hit Parade" was a huge hit on television throughout the 1950s. People tuned in weekly to see and hear the popular songs of the day with male vocalists Snooky Lawson, Russell Arms, and another popular female Canadian vocalist named Gisele MacKenzie!

Then came rock-n-roll. With the advent of Elvis, Ricky, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and others climbing the charts, "Your Hit Parade" tried desperately to stay in touch with the times.

Needless to say, "Your Hit Parade" took a dive in the ratings. Before its run ended, Collins went into the recording studio to create the album you're looking at. With the backing of Nathan Van Cleve & His Orchestra, she recorded twelve straightforward rendtions of Christmas songs.

Nothing really jumps out at you, style wise. Except Collins' wonderful voice.

After the demise of "YHP" in 1959, Collins appeared on television shows and in musical theater. In 1971, she was one of the original cast members in the Stephen Sondheim landmark musical "Follies" and was nominated for a Tony Award for her role.

For five years (1974-1979), she was co-host of a syndicated version of "Candid Camera" with Allen Funt. One such stunt that I remember was Dorothy driving a Volkswagen bug into a gas station and asking the attendant to fill it up. They had replaced the gas tank with a 55-gallon drum inside the car! One guy stood there for 20 minutes in bewilderment!

After "Candid Camera" ended, Collins settled into semi-retirement and made occasional public appearances after that. She had suffered with asthma for most of her life and as she got older, the disease took its toll in 1994. She was 67.

Dorothy Collins - Won't You Spend Christmas With Me (STEREO)

Happy listening...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bobby Breen - Songs At Yuletide

"My mother is in pictures,
You've seen her on the screen.
She gave chicken pox to Alan Ladd
And mumps to Bobby Breen."

Excerpt from "Ode from a Germ's Eye Viewpoint" by Percy Dovetonsils (aka Ernie Kovacs)

I first encountered the genius of Ernie Kovacs on my local PBS station in 1977. In those days, my brothers and I would place a tape recorder next to the speakers of the TV, record the audio, and listen to it repeated in lieu of a VCR. I quoted this poem frequently, placing the same emphasis on "Bobby BREEN" they way Percy Dovetonsils did.

That was the first time I became aware of someone named Bobby Breen. Curiosity got the the better of me and I went to my local library to consult its newest collection of World Book Encyclopedias. Breen was born in Canada and made his way to Hollywood as a youngster.

His first big break was several appearances singing on Eddie Cantor's radio show in the late 30s. His natural soprano voice separated him from many of the other child singers of the day and led him to RKO Studios. RKO featured him in several singing roles (go figure) in nine movies between 1936 and 1942.

His last film was "Johnny Doughboy" that featured 15-year old Bobby as one of several has-been child stars who want to put on a USO show for the troops! With his voice changed permanently thanks to puberty and a fading movie career, Breen turned to the stage and radio throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

This 10-inch record was released by London Records in 1950 and features nine Christmas songs by Breen (competently backed up by Bruce Campbell & His Orchestra - no, not THAT Bruce Campbell!). Most of the songs are standard Christmas carols and Breen fully sounds like a young adult as he sings; no evidence as a boy soprano here.

In later life, he appeared as a guest pianist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and hosting a local New York TV show in the early 1950s. He continued to get work in nightclubs and television spots well into the 1960s.

Amazingly, in 1964, Breen signed with Motown Records and released several singles that sold very little. A full album was recorded but never released... anyone have a copy of that album?

Three years later, Breen gained immortality by making the cover of The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". He appears over George Harrison's left shoulder (unlike the hand over Paul McCartney which either belongs to a priest blessing a corpse or is a signal of death in Norway - I forget).

In the late 1970s, Breen retired for good and moved down to Tamarac, Florida. Restless, he started a local talent agency in 1978 and continues to run this enterprise today - at the ripe ol' age of 82!

Merry Christmas, Bobby!

Bobby Breen - Songs At Yuletide

Happy listening...


P.S. This 10" share is dedicated to Buster, the gent who runs the darn good blog Big 10-Inch Record. Check out his blog for other rare and exotic 10" records, included some amazing Christmas shares!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The George Mitchell Minstrels - The Magic of Christmas

To modify an anonymous quote that has become famous: "Never judge an album by its cover".

Earlier this year, I was surfing through the holiday album listings at eBay when I discovered this album. I was shocked two different ways - the first being that I was able to track this album down at a reasonable price, the second was that stupefying cover.

Let's start at the beginning to fully understand this.

George Mitchell had come from a musical family - his grandfather was a well-known Scottish choir master and both of his parents were singers as well. He learned piano at an early age and during World War II, he organized military choirs and made a name for himself throughout the armed forces.

After the war, Mitchell went to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and organized radio choirs and shows utilizing his own handpicked glee club entitled "The George Mitchell Choir". As television began its ascent in popularity over radio, Mitchell began working on variety shows and specials for the new medium.

In 1957, the BBC decided to run a special entitled "The 1957 Television Minstrels" and called in Mitchell. With female dancers called "The Television Toppers" and a rechristened male choir called "Mitchell's Minstrels", the basis was formed for the show. It was a ratings winner.

The following year, the BBC and Mitchell decided to expand the special into a regular weekly series. The newly named "Black And White Minstrel Show" began broadcasting on Saturday nights, featuring a Mitch Miller-type singalong format for the home audiences.

In addition to solo and group minstrel numbers (complete with red make-up which looked black on camera), folk, foreign, and country/western songs were featured as well. The show was an instant hit and became a Saturday night tradition in England.

It was around this time that the Minstrels began a successful recording career. Their first album, "The Black and White Minstrel Show", was released in 1960. Other top-selling albums were "Another Black and White Minstrel Show" from 1961, and "On Stage with the Black and White Minstrels" in 1962.

If this wasn't enough, Mitchell began a stage show in 1960 that featured live performances by the Minstrels. It ran successfully throughout the entire decade and beyond. By 1964, the BBC TV audience had reached a staggering 16.5 million viewers each week - the same year the civil rights movement here in America was reaching its peak.

In 1967, the BBC decided that "The Black And White Minstrel Show" would be one of the first shows to shown in colour. Bad mistake.

John Lennon described it as "a stupid show". A group called "The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination" regarded the show as "insulting" and delivered a petition to the BBC requesting that it be taken off the air. Mitchell's solution to the problem was inviting actual black performers onto the show to sing with the others in blackface.

The controversy never fully went away and the show remained on the air. However, it began a long, slow slide in popularity and its regular viewership was now around eight million every Saturday night.

In 1970, Mitchell decided the time was right for a full-blown Christmas album. Rounding up his minstrels and his talented soloists John Boulter, Margaret Savage, and Dai Francis, they recorded the album you see before you.

When you drop the needle on this album, all controversies and preconceived notions instantly disappear. This is a remarkable album that grabs you from note one and doesn't let up until the very end. There's not one bad track in the lot.

Each side contains two amazing medleys of Christmas songs and each soloist is given plenty of room to shine. Mitchell's exceptional arrangements really come across well in each song. This is, by far, the album I'm most proud of presenting this Christmas.

The George Mitchell Minstrels - The Magic of Christmas

As the show entered the 1970s, the format remained the same and the once-acceptable blackface aspect of the show was dropped in an effort to qualm the controversy. It didn't matter - the ratings still were dropping slowly thanks to raised racial awareness. The fact they were playing music that dated back to the American Civil War undoubtedly hurt as well.

The stage show ended its run in 1972 after an amazing 6,477 performances and went onto the road, touring the English countryside with live shows. On one such tour, a young British comedian named Lenny Henry appeared with the troupe and has regretted the move ever since.

In 1975, George Mitchell was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II and continued with "The Black And White Minstrel Show" for three more years on TV. The BBC finally decided to cancel the show in 1978 - an incredible twenty year run for the program.

Mitchell handed the reins of the "Minstrel" show empire to his son Rob, and retired to America. The Minstrel show was kept alive on tour for another decade or so. One Internet source claims the final show was in 1987. Another source puts the date around 1992. It might still be running somewhere (who knows?).

Never judge an album by its cover... How true, how true.

Happy listening...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jimmie Davis - Going Home For Christmas

Last Friday, our good friend Ernie (of the famed Ernie (not Bert) blog) reposted a share of a great album recorded in 1965 by Jimmie Davis, who in addition to being a fairly good country singer, was the bonafide, duly-elected Governor of the great state of Louisiana!

I found this album at Laurie's Planet Of Sound in Chicago. I was extremely surprised to find it and never once paid attention to the background picture until I read the sticker placed directly next to the subtitle "Featuring the song "Forgive Me Santa". Someone on the staff of Planet of Sound wrote:

"Forgive Me Santa - for hanging you with a ribbon!"

As for the album, it was recorded in 1967 and features more of the same from ex-Gov. Davis - you can't get more old school Christmas country than this. In addition to the standard Christmas fare ("White Christmas", "Silver Bells", etc), Davis includes several new original songs.

"Forgive Me Santa" and The Priceless Gift of Christmas" which feature Davis narrating stories as the band plays. I must mention the song that ends side one. "Sniffles (Santa's Pet)" is the simple story of yet another character that Santa has at the North Pole... you get the idea.

Go get a copy of the first album from Ernie (if you haven't done so) and add this one. You'll have an instant Jimmie Davis Christmas collection - not too shabby!

Jimmie Davis - Going Home For Christmas

Happy listening...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Li'l Wally - Dance Around The Christmas Tree With

Last year, we shared out a great Christmas album (Jay Jay 1080) chock full of Polish Christmas songs and polkas by L'il Wally and his backing band The Harmony Boys. This album was discovered at Beverly Records in Chicago - one of the greatest vinyl stores left on the planet.

Earlier this year, I raided Beverly Records' famed WALL of Christmas music and came up with another gem from Chicago's very own polka king!

This album you're looking at was released a year or two earlier judging by the label numbers (Jay Jay 1026) and contains mostly Christmas standards with the full L'il Wally polka treatment. You've never lived until you've heard "Frosty", "Rudolph", and "Jingle Bells" with a polka beat!

However, the tracks you really need to listen to are the original tunes. "Merry Christmas Mom And Dad", "How Lovely Is Christmas", and "Dance Around The Christmas Tree" all have that familiar polka flavor but if you stop and listen to the lyrics, everything else fades away and you get some pretty Christmas tunes.

You be the judge... ah one, ah two...

Li'l Wally - Dance Around The Christmas Tree With

Happy listening...

Monday, December 7, 2009

VA - The Town That Arrested Santa Claus

It is no secret around here that I am not a kiddie Christmas type of guy. While other kids were listening to the Caroleers, Captain Kangaroo, and Peter Pan Christmas records, I was listening to a steady diet of easy listening Christmas music.

Over the years, I have shared out a few kiddie Christmas titles that many of you have enjoyed (i.e. A Pink Panther Christmas, The Pac-Man Christmas Album). Others I've posted because they struck me as odd (i.e. Alex Houston & Elmer, Irwin The Disco Duck).

This one I'm not sure what to think.

First, we have the jaw-droppingly inhumane cartoon cover that shows two cops hauling poor St. Nick off to the slammer. Directly above Santa, we can see two kids wailing in agony over the fact that Santa is about to get strip-searched and booked. Add an evil nemesis directly from the Snidley Whiplash School of Villains wringing his hands in delight off to the side and the stage is set.

As for the story, you can make up your own scenario judging by the cover. Obviously, the snake charmer has concocted a scheme that gets Santa arrested for his own personal agenda, only to be outwitted by a quick thinking kid or parent in front of a judge in a court of law, and Santa goes free just in time for his trip around the world.

Again, this is just guesswork. I merely dropped the needle on the record and ran. I didn't hear more than five seconds of this album during the transfer from vinyl to digital. And that five seconds was long enough for me.

How could anyone in their right minds buy this and play it for their kids at Christmas? Obviously someone did because I had to rebuy the album at a thrift store in Chicago for 50 cents.

Someone out there will find this album and say "WOW! I had this as a kid!" I'm interested in hearing from those people. To find out if this was a great album and listening experience for them or was it just the opposite. Don't be shy; we will have counselors on standby in case you need to talk to someone about this.

So without further ado...

Various Artists - The Town That Arrested Santa Claus

Happy listening...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Chicago Swedish Glee Club - Songs At Christmas

This second share for the 2009 Christmas downloading season is special in many ways. Let me explain.

The origin of the album is my original hometown of Chicago - home of my beloved Cubs, deep dish pizza, and multi-ethnic neighborhoods that blend together seamlessly into one giant melting pot by Lake Michigan. The fact this album was performed by Chicago Swedes should come as no surprise.

Another reason this album is special is because it's Swedish. Over the past several years, I've become friends with a fellow blogger/Christmas obsessive named Anna-Lena Lodenius. Hailing from Stockholm, Anna-Lena has been posting amazing Swedish Christmas fare at her blog Jul Igen - Christmas Again - be sure to visit and say hello! Hope you like this one Anna!

The final reason why this album is special is because it allowed me to re-establish an old acquaintance from my days as a used CD store manager. If you lived in the south suburbs of Chicago back in the day, you knew there was truly one record store for all of your rock/pop/R&B/indie needs.

That place was Record Swap in Homewood. It was one of the last great independent record stores of its era. And the man whose hand was on the throttle was its manager, John Laurie. I knew of John through my brother John - they were running buddies at the same high school and we were friendly competitors when I ran CD Exchange ("into the ground" as John would say).

Shortly after I left the Chicago era, Laurie left the store and its collapse was soon to follow. John decided to open up a new record store in the Lincoln Village area of Chicago and called it appropriately Laurie's Planet of Sound.

Earlier this year, I found the store, reacquainted with John, and found this album in their bin of Christmas music. Click on the link to see what I mean - heads up, most of those albums are LONG gone (darn it!) Still sealed in its original shrink wrap, this was in pristine condition and it was $4.

I wish I knew more about the Chicago Swedish Glee Club. It did have a website that I looked at several months ago but it seems that's been taken down. I would love to know more about the year it was recorded, what studio did they record it in, etc..

In any case, you're in for a treat. Side one is chock full of Swedish Christmas carols sung to the hilt by the fellows in the glee club. Side two is American Christmas carols and one gleeish version of "It's Beginning To Look Like Christmas"!

The Chicago Swedish Glee Club - Songs At Christmas